Tax hike explored for school safety

By DeeAnna Haney | May 13, 2013

The possibility of raising taxes to improve school safety is still on the table as county and school leaders discuss their priorities.

County commissioners, school board members and law enforcement representatives held a joint meeting Thursday evening to hear public comment and find some direction on the issue before drafting next year’s budget.

The school board recently requested funding for eight new employees, including four school resource officers and four guidance counselors, at a cost of $500,000 and school upgrades at a cost of $410,000.

But the county commissioners raised the issue of placing officers in all schools instead of just a select few, a move county leaders said could end up costing each household an average of about $20 per year.

So far, commissioners said they’ve had very little input from the public regarding the idea. Some have expressed support and others opposition to raising taxes.

Board of Education Chairman Chuck Francis stood by the board’s recent funding requests.

“We felt our request was more conservative than a full-blown 11 SROs. Yes, it would be hard to make a decision on where the SROs would go and we would count on law enforcement to help us with that, but we didn’t want to ask for extravagance,” Francis said.

But Swanger said adding just those eight positions would require a tax increase anyway.

“It’s going to be a tax increase because we don’t have the money,” he said.

Maggie Valley resident Jim Blythe was one of the few at the meeting to speak his mind about the issue.

“This issue with SRO’s in our schools in the wake of Sandy Hook is something we can’t afford not to do,” he said.

County EMS worker and parent Brad Miller agreed that school resource officers would help school security, but said having uniform entry and exit policies throughout the school system would help as well.

Others said funding for guidance counselors could make a difference in school safety.

Susan Savage, principal of Hazelwood Elementary spoke of the school’s desperate need for a full-time guidance counselor.

With only a part-time counselor, the school has invented alternative programs to help students make sound choices and cope with difficult situations. But the students need and deserve more, Savage said.

“It is physically impossible for our counselor to meet the needs of almost 500 students. We want and need to address our students’ needs now. There are times I’ve had to give students OSS, however these are the students that need to be at school with the stability of a guidance counselor’s support,” she said.

She believes that having a counselor could also mean more security at the school.

“In many recent school disasters it came to light that there were mental health issues that were not met for our students and at that point it was too late to try to help. The saddest two words in the English language are 'too late,' and I don’t want to have to say that to our parents,” Savage said.

Nicole Conner, a full-time guidance counselor who splits her time between Hazelwood and Riverbend elementary schools, also spoke.

With a case load of about 700 students between both schools, her time is spread thin. Sometimes, she’s forced to turn kids away, choosing between which cases seem most pressing.

“Many nights I’m kept awake wondering about the choices I’ve made during the day,” she said, holding back tears.

She spoke of several students who dealt with the loss of a parent and other difficult situations at home this year.

“How can we expect a child to sit in a classroom and learn without offering the needed support in these situations?” she said.

She also noted that a school counselor plays a pivotal role in targeting and eliminating bullying, which in turn could prevent violence in schools.

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said that school resource officers are just one answer to a multi-faceted issue, but they could make a big difference if tragedy occurs.

“I’ve talked to the people at Sandy Hook in Newtown. Did they expect that to happen in their sleepy town? Absolutely not. All we can do as law enforcement is try to prepare for the worst,” he said.

School board member Bob Morris said a county-wide school assessment could help school leaders identify specific security needs. Rather than hiring an officer for each school, some might need better equipment and barriers.

Officers have walked through each school and made suggestions and the school system has improved security by replacing doors at several schools. But more money is needed for that as well.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is for safety. I don’t know anybody in Haywood that is not for safety, but how you pay for it is the question,” said County Commissioner Bill Upton.

He suggested taking another look at the budget to see if there is possibly any money to earmark for school safety.

Upton said the funding issue is three-prong — whether they want to hire four or 11 school resource officers, capital outlay for securing school doors and hiring guidance counselors.

“The school board needs to give us some guidance about what is the most important of those three,” he said.

More than anything, county and school leaders explained that the prospect of raising taxes is not taken lightly.

“At this point I’m not ready to make any kind of decision based on what I’ve heard so far. It is important. There are people out there who have a hard time paying their property taxes and I think we need to be good stewards of their money…” said County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

If there was one issue both boards seemed in agreement was that arming teachers and volunteers is not an appropriate solution.

“Of all the remedies I can think of, that’s absolutely the worst,” said County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley agreed saying, “I think teachers should teach, They shouldn’t be police officers.”

In the end, it was decided that education board members will discuss their top priority in school security and report back to commissioners.

"I don’t know that we’ve resolved a lot but I think we have a path forward of sorts. It may be necessary for our board to have a work session prior to the budget being presented. We just have to gauge what the public thinks and what we think," Swanger said.